The days when the American theater minted its own bona fide stars seem to have faded like so many yellowing playbills bearing the names of the Lunts and Sarah Bernhardt, Uta Hagen and George Grizzard. In the Netflix age, can an actor build a commanding body of work, let alone engender a devoted following, with the stage as the main platform? Three recent Broadway plays that had limited runs gave a hearteningly affirmative answer, even as they exemplify what looks like a trend toward celebrity casting that has invited much critical hand-wringing but was mostly vindicated by the fine performances all around.
In “Time Stands Still,” Donald Margulies’s well-crafted new play about war reporters adjusting poorly to the home front, Laura Linney played an obsessive photojournalist with a magisterial mix of wariness, wit and well-concealed pain, alongside a cast of stage pros and one Broadway newcomer, Alicia Silverstone, who slotted into the ensemble effortlessly. In “A View From the Bridge,” Arthur Miller’s mid-century portrait of working-class resentment and repression, Liev Schreiber and Jessica Hecht gave towering, indelible performances as a strained married couple, while the young Scarlett Johansson, in her first major stage appearance, held her own as the unwitting cause of the marital strain.
And in an uneven new revival of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker,” a diminutive firecracker named Alison Pill, as the willful governess and teacher Annie Sullivan, staked her claim as a native stage talent alongside Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine” herself, who disappeared convincingly and movingly into the showpiece role of Helen Keller.
But those are not “stage stars,” I hear you protest. After all, you’ve seen Linney and Schreiber in many movies. (You might recognize Hecht from a recurring role on “Friends” and Pill from a memorable turn in the biopic “Milk.”) Well, yes; no working actor with any ambition, not to mention rent to pay, can afford to forgo lucrative film and television opportunities. But with due respect to these actors’ fine work onscreen, not everyone rushes to see them onstage because they were brilliant in “Love Actually” or “Scream.” Linney and Schreiber, in particular, are the kind of stage-seasoned actor’s actors whom discerning theatergoers line up to see primarily on the strength of their stage work, and whose performances they will talk about for years. Hecht is not far behind their rank, and Pill is fast becoming the same kind of you-must-see-her-live theatrical star.
It is easy to see why great stage actors attract devotees. The best among them are a unique blend of long-distance athlete and fine-grained craftsperson. To realize a role onstage every night requires a mastery of time and space no editor or director of photography can provide, as well as a heightened sensitivity to the small moments, accidents and felicities that crop up differently every night. Few actors anywhere can catch and release a stage with such firm delicacy as the hulking Schreiber, who played the Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone with a burn so slow you did not notice it until the whole stage was ablaze—figuratively speaking, of course. Schreiber’s intensity almost never rose to a full roar. What’s remarkable is how little he does to convey even the hugest of emotions. He understands that even in a big Broadway theater, acting is still about capturing nuances of behavior that illuminate larger truths.
This is particularly true of Miller’s thematically ambitious 1955 play, which traces the disastrous effects of Eddie’s quasi-incestuous infatuation with his wife’s niece, Catherine, when she reaches maturity and finds a likely mate in a fey Italian immigrant.
Miller, writing outside his own culture, seems to have been inspired by the play’s Italian-American setting to strive for a kind of gritty operatic verismo à la “Cavalleria Rusticana.” In the process, he also included his most explicit references to one of his lifelong projects: to graft the pressing moral quandaries of everyday American life onto the god-crossed tragedies of the Greeks. Here, a lawyer named Alfieri (played with casual lyricism by Michael Cristofer) offers narration that would have been provided by the chorus in ancient Greece, as he watches a terrible destiny unfold among Eddie and his long-suffering wife Beatrice (Hecht, pinched yet sympathetic, without a drop of sentimentality), the budding Catherine and a pair of illegals from the old country, Marco and Rodolpho.
Schreiber’s overwhelming restraint, under Gregory Mosher’s unflustered, concentrated direction, set the sobered-up tone and rendered the play’s stark colors—rage! jealousy! betrayal!—in burnished, battered shades rather than in florid extremes. That may explain in part why the resourceful Johansson blended in so well. Adjusting herself to this grayish-brown world, she was more russet than Scarlett.
“Time Stands Still” handled its pressing moral dilemmas—the proper role and responsibility of those who document the world’s worst atrocities, the passivity of the audiences who consume their work—in a more familiar contemporary register. No operatic soliloquies about justice here, just a tetchy ongoing argument between Jamie (Brian d’Arcy James), a traumatized war reporter who is ready to pack it in for a saner life stateside, and Sarah (Linney), a photographer who has come home only because she has been injured in Iraq and who plans to return as soon as she is back on her feet. Their bond, initially forged but now frayed by frontline adrenaline, is further tested in contrast with the all-too-cozy romance between Richard, Sarah’s phlegmatic assignment editor (Eric Bogosian) and Mandy, his much younger girlfriend (Silverstone).
This is a finely made and serious play, and it was smoothly directed by Daniel Sullivan. But there is no suspense in its central relationship drama. For all D’Arcy James’s eloquent sputtering, we could predict the ending from Linney, who remained too stubbornly true to her character’s complications for us to have believed that Sarah will relent. All that’s left between the curtains, then, is moderately amusing and mildly challenging banter over divergent lifestyle choices, the cultural representation of violence and the state of publishing. In other words, “Time Stands Still” is more or less indistinguishable from a slightly edgy dinner party.
“The Miracle Worker” was the odd one out of this Broadway power trio because the real draw here was not any actor but the play itself. Sure enough, on the night I attended the show, the house was packed with parents and tweens on hand for this generation’s ritual retelling of Annie Sullivan’s inspiring breakthrough with a young, near-feral Helen Keller. Seen today, William Gibson’s 1957 play remains an engaging but almost shockingly slight work that looks like a TV-movie prototype.
But if its structure is spindly, its tentpole moments still hold up. Our introduction to the feisty orphan Annie; her repeated faceoffs with Helen’s stubborn parents (Jennifer Morrison and Matthew Modine, both of them weak tea); and, above all, her brutal scrimmages and hard-won progress with the blind-and-deaf but hardly disabled little bully Helen, reaching its peak in the easily parodied but still effective water-pump epiphany.
Kate Whoriskey’s uneven direction never made peace with Circle in the Square’s in-the-round configuration. We seldom felt we are where we want to be as the action unfolds. But as she demonstrated in last year’s “Ruined,” Whoriskey excels at shaping scenes of connection, and competition, among women in close quarters. As Annie struggles first to tame, then to teach Helen, we are privy to the emergence of what will be a lifelong bond, though the play ends with but a hint of it.
We are also witness to the emergence of a true stage star—not Breslin, who was good as Helen but remained, in part because of the role’s unique demands, somewhat opaque. The title, after all, tells us whom the play is really about, and the indomitable Pill worked her own brand of miracles. The first of these is to take full possession of a role created by Anne Bancroft, a stage-minted star if there ever was one. That Pill owned it so neatly and totally is cause to hope for the future of this irreducibly live art.